Today we’re joined by Beth Bernobich, author of Passion Play and Queen’s Hunt, excellent fantasies in a modified epic mode. (Although I’ll say this for Passion Play: ignore the cover art. Ignore the cover copy. The book itself is far different—and much better—than its copy would have you believe.) The third novel in Bernobich’s River of Souls sequence, Allegiance, is out 11th November—and I rather enjoyed reading the ARC.
Yes, I’m gloating. Just a little.
But rather than bore you with details, let’s get to the questions!
LB: Let’s start with my standard opener. What’s your opinion of how women—as authors, as characters, or as fans and commenters—are received within the SFF genre community? (Please feel free to interpret the question as broadly or as narrowly as you please.)
BB: Let me start off by talking about my other job. I’m a software engineer, with 30+ years experience in the field. I fell into my career by accident, really out of curiosity, and when I discovered they would pay me for doing what came naturally, I was delighted. People would give me money to solve puzzles!
All great, right?
Yes and no.
While I’ve never had trouble finding a job, I have noticed I am often the only woman in a department, or maybe one of out three. Beyond that, my white straight male co-workers often assumed that the usual setup was “Man works, woman might work but her salary was a luxury.” Um, wow. Way to go relegating women to the lesser tier.
Same company, different day. My husband came to give me a ride home, and as they waited in the parking lot, our 10-year-old son commented, “Wow. There aren’t a lot of women where Mom works.”
To give some specifics: the company hired two engineers from India, no one from east Asia, and no blacks. Everyone else was white. And of the four women, two left and one was laid off. Yep, it was a white, male, straight world overall.
Not all companies are like this. My current employer hires a diverse workforce, as do others. But many more never bother to challenge their blinkered view of the world and never notice all the talented women and people of color. It’s not even a conscious decision, most of the time, but the result is the same as if it were.
This is not to say that women and minorities can’t get jobs with computers. We do. Just...the numbers tell us that fewer women get hired, and when they do get hired, they earn less money and they’re given less challenging jobs.
And because fewer women get hired, fewer young women bother to apply for those jobs. Why? Perception. Cultural influence. The story told to us is that Women Won’t and Don’t and Can’t Do This. That women never did work in software, which is just not true.
We are the women men do not see.
So. SF/F. A lot of the same observations apply here. Women do get published. They edit. They review works. They are fans, and have been from the beginning.
But so often, we are invisible to the larger world. We are told, “What you write is not true SF/F.” Or we are told, “ SF/F is a guy’s genre, don’t you know?” Or we are simply ignored, dismissed, or devalued. Fantasy? Sure, women write fantasy, but it’s clearly romance with fantasy trappings. (As if romance was a swear word.) Urban fantasy? Not worth acknowledging. SF? No, really, that wasn’t SF. Did you notice the girl cooties? Epic fantasy? Utter silence.
We are here, but we are reviewed less than men. We are acknowledged less. And when someone does notice us, we’re relegated to second and third class.
(Yes, yes, there are exceptions. But exceptions do not erase the everyday experience of women writing in this genre.)
What about women as characters?
Sure, women are included in SF/F stories, and have been since the beginning—if by “included” you mean “not left out entirely.” But can we talk a moment about the Bechdel Test?
I like the Bechdel Test. It’s not perfect, but it provides a good test for our cultural biases. All it asks is that two women, who are named characters, talk about something or someone other than a guy. Just once. Easy, right?
But the results with books and movies tell us that our culture still privileges the straight white male experience over everyone else. We do have women writing about real, three-dimensional women, but see above about how those authors, those characters are ignored.
What really frustrates me are all those articles by Nice Guy Writers who babble on about how they struggled to write strong female characters. Sure, these are Nice Guys. And yes, they mean to include us in their stories. But why listen to them and not to us, not to our stories? Even leaving out the men who write faux-strong women, this emphasis on men writing about women simply reinforces the concept of men as Real People, and women as second-class writers and charaters.
As if women are aliens, who can’t be rendered as humans.
As if women are decorative pieces, a part of the world-building, but not part of society.
As if women have not been writing about women for centuries.
And frankly, that makes me angry.
(And oh dear ghu, I tried to reword that because I was raised to be quiet and polite and unassuming, but no. Let’s be honest.)
We women are people just as much as men are. We are readers and authors and critics. We have been here since the beginning. If you can’t see that, you need to open your eyes.
LB: In Passion Play, Ilse survives a significant amount of sexual coercion. Did you ever have second thoughts about this aspect of Ilse’s journey? Would you like to share your reasons for including it?
BB: No, I never had second thoughts about including the sexual coercion. Even now, looking back over the series, I would not soften that element. I certainly would not remove it.
As for why I chose to include that aspect… Many, many different reasons.
I’ve read too many books where rape is used to motivate the hero or as an opportunity for our hero to rescue the woman and show he’s a good guy. Even worse are the books that use rape for grim-dressing, or that treat rape as no big deal. Dozens of nameless women being raped? Gotta have that realism. The woman is raped in chapter one and having gratitude sex with her rescuer in chapter two? Um, no. Most of the time, we see the events from the guy’s point of view, and the woman is merely a plot object.
I wanted to give a more realistic and more complete portrayal, not only showing how horrific rape is, but what comes next. How others will often blame the victim. How damned easy it is for the victim to question herself, to second-guess every single decision leading up to the assault. How damned hard it can be to say, “Yes, I was raped.” And to understand that it’s not her fault.
But that’s just a starting point. I wanted to tell a personal story of one woman surviving and healing. I wanted to show that, while this harrowing experience will never disappear from her memories, she is able to live and love and trust. That her life encompasses far more than the label “rape survivor.”
Could I have skipped her ordeal completely? Possibly, if I had wanted to make the world and the story safer. But I didn’t want to tell a safe story.
Could I have chosen a different kind of ordeal? Maybe. Torture without rape also leaves the survivor with emotional scars that can last a lifetime, but its rarity would have skewed the entire sequence. Alarik Brandt is an ordinary monster. Rape is a danger that women and girls face in their everyday lives. And the blame that Ilse faces, and half-believes herself at first, is what rape survivors in our own world undergo.
There is a trope of rape as the trial by fire to make the character stronger. Ilse was plenty strong before she set off on her journey. Even so, she nearly loses her sense of self during her ordeal. She tries to tell herself that this was her choice, because the alternative was too awful to accept. But when given the chance to get away, it’s her strength that enables her to escape and survive a long trek through the wilderness.
Not everyone escapes. Not everyone heals. But I wanted to tell the story of someone who did.
LB: Why reincarnation? It drives a lot of things in the River of Souls series, and as for me, I’m curious to hear about the reasons behind it.
BB: I wish I could say that this was a deliberate choice, with all the implications worked out before I wrote the first word of the first book. Alas, I’m not nearly that organized.
Back in the misty mists of time, when I wrote the ur-text of what later became Queen’s Hunt, I planned to write a single book with Valara Baussay as the main character. In this version, her father had the part of Leos Dzavek’s brother, and Valara was simply making right his previous mistakes.
Eventually I figured out that Ilse was the true main character and Valara needed to take over her father’s back story. His mistakes became hers, and her character changed from sweet daughter to a ruthless queen-in-training. Much more fun.
I also figured out that if Valara had previous lives, I needed to work through the rest of the main characters and decide who had been who and when. I also needed to answer the most important question of why. Why did these particular characters cross paths from life to life? It was then I asked myself whether fate or free will controlled my characters’ lives.
Both, I decided.
So. Everyone in River of Souls lives multiple lives. Everyone is drawn to the same situations time and again throughout their lives. Everyone has the freedom to act as they please, within the constraints of their culture and their circumstances. But action implies consequences, even the decision to avoid a decision, which leads right back to facing these situations again and again, until they confront the problem directly. Only then can they move on.
Once I realized that, a giant light bulb of illumination went off, and I rewrote everything with this concept in mind. Instead of an accidental world-building choice, reincarnation became the driving force for the plot. All my characters suddenly had second and third chances, if they had the wit and courage to face difficult situations.
This doesn’t mean they are suddenly gifted with easy lives, free of obstacles. Decisions—all decisions—beget consequences, which lead to more situations and more confrontations. To quote from the first paragraph of Allegiance:
Endings, as the Tanja Duhr once wrote, were deceptive things…In truth, the end of one story, or one life, carried the seeds for the next.
LB: The River of Souls series falls under the rubric of epic fantasy. What do you think you’re in dialogue with in the genre? What are you willing to claim as your influences?
BB: To be honest, I’m not sure where I fit into the dialog. I first came to fantasy and science fiction as an outsider. Oh, sure, I had read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings when I was ten years old. Around the same time I gobbled down Dunsany’s King of Elfland’s Daughter. But I also read all kinds of other books, including Dickens, Austen, Jack London, and Flaubert. I never knew about this thing called genre until I attended my first convention in the late 1990s.
That’s point one. Point two is when I went to college, where I immediately fell in love with history and political science. Those classes are my true influences with epic fantasy. My first professor, Dr. Thomas Porter, told us that what happened was not nearly so important as why it happened. Another professor, Dr James Scanlon, led a class about the American Revolution where we all played an historical role, either British or American. That’s where we truly learned that history was personal.
But most important of all is my family. We are storytellers. We like to talk about our own personal histories, but also those of our friends and family, anecdotes that are funny or sad, but all of them true as we see it.
So combine these three and you get my fascination with the personal aspect of historical events. And perhaps that’s what I think I bring to epic fantasy: history as a tapestry of individual lives.
LB: Do you see any interesting recent developments in the genre?
BB: I do. I see more personal stories told against the larger tapestry of history. I see more books with women in central roles. I see more books with cultures other than white medieval European. We have a long way to go—we need to see those books given the same attention as ones by white men, about white men, and we need to see more books that aren’t heteronormative-but the times, they are a-changing.
LB: What interests you most in a book? When you read, and when you write? Please feel free to give examples.
BB: Strong, intricate characters doing things that matter intensely to them—that will grab me every time. Think Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, with Jack’s passion and skill for commanding his ship, and Stephen’s dedication to the cause of liberty. Both are complicated men, geniuses in their individual spheres, flawed and interesting, with a deep friendship that grows and changes over the years
But I want more than just two strong main characters. I want a memorable supporting cast with their own agendas. The Aubrey/Maturin have that. Another example is The Queen’s Thief series. Eugenides is the star character, but Eddis and Attolia are equally strong, with equally compelling personalities, and the secondary characters are living, breathing, complex people
When I write… this is a hard one to answer. I’ve been told I write stories with secrets at their heart. Raul Kosenmark has lived by secrets his entire life—with his family, at court in Duenne, and certainly in Tiralien with his shadow court. All the other characters in River of Souls have their own secrets, from Nadine to Valara Baussay to Ilse herself. In my novella “Thief of War”, Arbija keeps her name, her history, her language, and even her true face a secret.
LB: And one last wrap-up question: What are you working on now? What should we expect to see from you next?
BB: I am currently working on an alternate history novel, The Time Roads, which is a collection of four linked novellas set in a world where Ireland rules an empire, England is a dependency, and the United States does not exist. That is scheduled to come out from Tor in early 2015. There’s also another River of Souls novel in the pipeline, Edge of the Empire, which is set 500 years before Passion Play. After that? I’d like to write two more River of Souls novels at some point, but with characters other than Ilse and Raul. I also have an outline for what I call my Not-Mansfield-Park novel, with magic and polyamory.